This month saw a big change for the Yankton City Commission.
Last week marked the final meeting with Charlie Gross after more than two combined decades on the commission
But Gross told the Press & Dakotan he learned the value of public service well before attaining elected office.
“I grew up in a family that believed in public service,” Gross said. “My grandpa was involved in building the Meridian Bridge.”
Working in West Burlington, Iowa, in the ‘70s, Gross said it was a meeting with one of his bosses that helped him dive into civics.
“In 1979, my employer asked me if I knew what the city was doing and I said ‘I don’t know,’” he said. “I worked at a bank in town and he said, ‘They’re 10 percent of our (business), you ought to know what they’re doing.’ So I started going to city council meetings and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
But it would be a move to Council Bluffs, Iowa that would see him take a more active role.
“They were having a change of government, going from a city manager form of government to a strong mayor,” he said.
Gross served with the Council Bluffs City Council from 1988-1991 before making the move to Yankton where he found the city already tackling what would be one of the first major issues he worked on — one he’d been experienced with in Iowa.
“When I got to Yankton, I started going to commission meetings and listened to the city manager try to explain solid waste,” he said. “Iowa was a couple of years ahead of South Dakota because, at that time, we had been, for several years, addressing the solid waste issue and what to do.”
Gross decided to get involved again. He served on the City Commission in two tenures — 1993-2005 and 2007-2019.
He said there were a number of projects and moments that stood out during that time.
“In the early ‘90s, solid waste was certainly one of them,” he said. “The formation of the Joint Powers was something, I thought, DENR should’ve done across the state — there should’ve been 10 regional landfills in South Dakota and we should not have been on our own to figure this out. I thought the state really dropped the ball on that one. The wastewater treatment plant in 1998-1999 was a biggie. I think when I first arrived in Yankton, one of the first votes was what to do with the high school and, of course, that ended up in court. The city had a part in that as we financed the Summit Activities Center.”
Gross said there was one major lesson learned during this time.
“It’s an ongoing process,” he said. “You really have to balance the needs of the city with the desires of the city and the available resources. … We have too many needs and not enough resources. We’re no different than any other political subdivision.”
He added some pieces of the process he’s still hearing about.
“It just seemed like there was so much going on all of the time,” he said. “The water plant improvements didn’t happen overnight. That took years to figure out what we were going to do. I still get yelled at for that one.”
Gross said his brief departure from the commission came down to where he was working.
“One of my employers said, ‘You’ve done that long enough. It’s time to let someone else do it,’ so I stepped off the board in 2005,” he said. “I changed employers later and my new employer didn’t care. At (City commissioner) Dave Dickinson’s death, I was reappointed to finish his term from September to May.”
Some of Gross’ former colleagues had glowing words for his tenure.
Yankton Mayor Nathan Johnson’s first experiences with Gross were in a much different capacity.
“When I first started covering local politics for the Yankton Press & Dakotan, Charlie Gross was mayor,” Johnson said. “And, for me, he came to encapsulate my image of the quintessential statesman: composed, principled and affable. Most important of all, he has been an incredible advocate for Yankton during his more than 20 years on the City Commission. So when I think of Yankton, I inevitably think of Charlie Gross.”
He added that Gross was an important influence on him.
“One of my favorite things in the world is to sit down with him over a steak and discuss what’s going on in the community and the world. We don’t always agree on things. In fact, we often disagree. But that is part of the fun. Through the years, Charlie has become a mentor to me. He offers advice, support and is an incredible teacher. I’m grateful to be his ‘student’ and friend.
Johnson said Gross’ presence behind the commission desk is going to be missed for many reasons.
“It will be strange to look down the table and not see Charlie there,” he said. “Because of his financial background, he was our budget expert. Because of his long tenure on the commission and as a resident of the community, he was our City of Yankton historian. Because of his affability and excitability, he was often the subject of a good-natured joke just to see his reaction. He will be dearly missed on the commission. However, I and others fully expect that Charlie will be around for some time to let us know what we’re doing right – and wrong!”
During last week’s City Commission meeting, City Manager Amy Leon discussed her special way of celebrating what had been designated Charlie Gross Day in Yankton.
“In honor of Charlie, I did not spend any money today,” Leon said. “Both the city and my husband are happy about that.”
Leon thanked Gross for helping bring her to the helm.
“You were one of the folks that took a chance on me and hired me — so you can either thank him or blame him,” she said. “Charlie and I have become friends. Certainly, he has challenged me on a lot of things.”
While he isn’t sure if he’ll return to elected office, Gross said he’s taking his next steps one at a time.
“It’s called retirement, but I’m still working on that as a concept,” he said. “I’ll still be teaching (at Mount Marty College) next year, so total retirement’s not quite in the picture yet. But, at some point — as my doctor says, ‘Charlie, it’s time for you to do less.’”
He still plans to attend City Commission — and potentially Yankton County Commission — meetings in the future.
Gross said that he continues to emphasize the importance of public service.
“I tell my students that, if you want to get involved in a community, one of the best ways is through the Chamber of Commerce or a service club,” he said. “Certainly, the City Commission is a part of that.”
He used the example of one of his former students who, just like himself in another time, found themselves working at a bank and wanting to know more of what was going on with the city.
“One of my students went to work with Wells Fargo and he said, ‘OK, how do I get to know people?’” he said. “I had him join the Chamber of Commerce. His first meeting, we elected him chairman of the Government Affairs Committee so I could step down. He said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ And I said, ‘It’s alright. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be right here.’ He’s now moved on and works for Wells Fargo in Omaha, but that’s what you have to do if you’re a young person and you want to be successful in your job — I think you have to also contribute to your community.”
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